Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant says newspapers can't be online without reader comments. The comments section at her paper hosts an invaluable discussion. Anyway, she says, it's the paper's job to make sure the conversation stays civilized.
Artist: Dorthy Ashby
BOB GARFIELD: Carole Tarrant is editor of The Roanoke Times. She believes that the voices of her community must be heard, albeit not necessarily in a free for all. CAROLE TARRANT: It’s not the Wild West. I don't believe in putting up comments with every story. We've been through this before, and it surprises me that this conversation still keeps coming up because I thought this was dead. I thought we'd had this in like 2002. And papers are getting in this conversation and acting surprised that there’s this ugliness out there. It’s been a part of the Internet since, you know, as long as I can remember. BOB GARFIELD: Well, maybe it is a function of larger news organizations with national and international readership. CAROLE TARRANT: Mm-hmm. BOB GARFIELD: The dynamic, as you suggest, is very different for, let's just say, The Washington Post or The Guardian than it is for The Roanoke Times. I guess you don't have a whole lot of people in California writing in on your local school board. CAROLE TARRANT: No, you know, we reach a much larger audience with college football. You know, Virginia Tech is here. But otherwise, it’s a community of people who live here or used to live here or know people here.
The vast majority of journalism in this country is at markets of my size and smaller. In those markets, I've seen people see those message boards as kind of an area of civic debate and they will have these thoughtful conversations about what’s important in the community and take our stories to another place that we couldn't have imagined. They will react to things that we might have buried in a story — it might be in the sixth paragraph — and they're going, oh, this is really interesting, and kind of propelling us to investigate maybe an angle of the story we hadn't thought of.
BOB GARFIELD: You had an interesting comment in your piece about the question of anonymity. Often, that offers impunity for trolls and hateful jerks, but you point out that sometimes it gives individuals in the community, freedom to make considered commentary that they couldn't do if they left their names. Can you give me some examples? CAROLE TARRANT: Yeah, I mean, if you can imagine, we had kind of an embattled school system in Roanoke a few years ago, and there were teachers who were very much afraid for their jobs if they spoke out publicly. There was no way that could feel comfortable about writing a signed letter to our editor and have it published in our newspaper with their name.
That message board gave them an opportunity to, it wasn't just a matter of, you know, slamming the superintendent. It was, this is what’s going on in our schools and you all need to know about it, and then readers who had their children in school going, I didn't know that was the case, or I thought that was the case but you’re giving me a new insight. BOB GARFIELD: A few moments ago, you mentioned Virginia Tech, which is in Blacksburg, not far from Roanoke, and was the site a year and a half ago of a horrendous massacre, a young man gunning down his fellow students and some professors.
You had, of course, intensive coverage of that episode. Were those stories open to comments? And how revealing and helpful were they?
CAROLE TARRANT: Almost from the very beginning when we got news of the shooting, we knew online that we needed to offer people some way to comment on what happened. We initially put up just our generic message board and, you know, what we expected is people commenting on the shootings and - hey, do you know where this person is, are they okay — and kind of using it as a community bulletin board.
There were a few people that tried to hijack it and talk about gun control. So we pulled down that message board and we went to something called legacy.com, which is a vendor many newspapers use to post their obituaries, and attached to those obituaries are moderated message boards. And they are very much screened. Comments are not posted live. They're looked at by editors within legacy.com.
And we personally couldn't spend the time right then to look at those comments because we were so busy trying to cover the news.
Those comments came in, and they're still coming in today. If you look at any of the obituaries from any of the victims of that, it’s a very live kind of tribute site to what happened. And to not have that just would have been a huge disservice to the community. BOB GARFIELD: So is it democratic? Is it something less than democratic? I mean, where does it fit in, in the overall scheme of the digital democracy that is supposed to be the ideal? CAROLE TARRANT: I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I mean, it’s not the editorial page, which I just don't believe represents what people are saying, but it’s not say anything. You know, we are going to kind of keep you in these loose boundaries, and we'll let a lot of stuff fly before we ban you or we take the post down.
But when you've been doing it long enough, I think the community of people participating, they know what the ground rules are. And I really believe if you’re a newspaper online and you don't allow this, you’re not really online. You've got to invest in this and really think about it and not just shut off the pipeline.
We have a whole generation that’s trained to expect to be able to voice their opinion, not just to read the news but to talk about it or share it, and that may be ugly or it may be really provocative, but I want to hear it. BOB GARFIELD: Carole, thank you very much. CAROLE TARRANT: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Carole Tarrant is the editor of The Roanoke Times.